Market Report: Rainstorms put a damper on the insurance sector

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INSURANCE shares are the latest casualties of this rain-soaked autumn. Fears that the torrential rain will produce a flood of claims prompted nervous selling, although late bargain-hunting trimmed some of the falls.

But, as insurance values were eroded by the national soaking, water shares romped ahead, inspired by their fat dividend yields.

The insurers had, until yesterday, surived the rainstorms in better shape than many had expected. But negative noises from Kleinwort Benson and increasingly doleful weather comments took their toll.

Commercial Union fell 12p to 631p, General Accident 14p to 723p and Royal Insurance 7p to 308p. On the life pitch Legal & General retreated 9p to 513p and Prudential 6p to 348p.

Although best levels were not held, waters reached new highs with Northumbrian stretching 16p to 680p. Thames improved 7p to 574p.

Electricities were less impressive, with strong early gains reduced by late profit-taking.

Institutions are behind the latest stampede into utilities, which has sent shares moving ahead strongly this month. Most are still underweight. With interest rates likely to fall in the next few months, the high-yielding utilities are becoming increasingly important constituents of most portfolios.

They are also regarded as relatively risk-free investments despite the insistent presence of their regulators.

Water shares yield more than 5 per cent, with electricities not far behind.

Airtours, the holidays group, was one to gain from the weather. Expectations that there could be a rush to sunnier climes pushed the shares 16p higher to 445p, a peak.

Hoare Govett is known to be a buyer. There is a belief that the group is trading ahead of expectations and winning market share from Owners Abroad, the rival tour group that escaped its clutches earlier this year.

Owners, tormented by boardroom changes, edged ahead 1p to 76p. The Airtours share exchange offer would today be worth nearly 200p a share.

The rest of the stock market was unsettled by the latest batch of Whitehall statistics. At one time the FT-SE 100 index was down 23.5 points as some determined sellers appeared. But once they were accommodated prices recovered some ground, largely the result of marking up.

British Aerospace was the surprise of the session. The latest Taiwan setback prompted one securities house to anticipate a 40p opening fall. In the event the shares lost 18p and then confounded the pessimists with a closing gain of 1p at 408p.

The group insists that talk from Taiwan that the regional jets deal has broken down is wide of the mark. It expects talks to resume soon.

SG Warburg regard BAe shares as a buy and Barclays de Zoete Wedd believes that if the Taiwan deal is lost it would not be all gloom for the group. BZW would alter this year's forecast from a pounds 60m profit to a pounds 140m loss but lift next year's from a pounds 165m profit to pounds 200m.

Wellcome rose 5p to 741p. A cancer treatment developed by a US house closely associated with Wellcome is undergoing clinical trials and early results are said to be encouraging.

Unilever put on 17p to 1,076p, apparently helped by a statement that its arch rival Procter & Gamble expects to report record third- quarter results. The opening of a gap between the British and Dutch shares and investment meetings in Scotland were other influences.

Rank Organisation added 13p to 820p as a lingering line was finally cleared and Morgan Stanley said buy. But Thorn EMI fell 13p to 920p on the US probe into compact disc prices.

BT was ruffled by the giant US telephone merger, falling 4.5p to 440.5p. The strength of the Hong Kong market continued to inspire Cable and Wireless, up 16p at 927p, and the Securicor trio made headway in belated recognition of their role in the Cellnet operation following Tuesday's presentation.

In a weak financial sector Smith New Court stood out, up 8p at 378p, as BZW lifted its profit forecast by pounds 2m to pounds 40m.

A large line of Storehouse may have been placed after some difficulty. The shares fell 7p to 200p. Cazenove placed the 7 million share rump of the MB Caradon rights at 331p against 339p, up 3p.

Automated Security, under pressure lately as BZW quit as broker after a row over its enhanced scrip dividend and a profit warning, rallied 16p to 113p. Tom Buffett, chairman, bought 250,000 shares at 111p. Institutions paid 142p for the scrip dividend.

The beer keg maker Alumasc fell 7p to 563p as its chairman, John McCall, sold 183,000 shares.

Acorn Computers, which has been doing the City rounds, was firm at 96p. A cellular contract for its RISC Machines chip is expected to be announced soon.

SG Warburg has launched a warrant fund that will invest in a basket of leading European media stocks. The fund is designed as a play in the burgeoning 'multi- media' market. Each warrant, priced at about pounds 2,047, will back six companies, with Thorn EMI and Pearson representing Britain. Last week BZW launched a similar fund investing in a package of UK food retailers.

Has Prime People, the Manchester management training group that is little more than a shell, at last found a bid target? The shares achieved the best gain of the day, up 30 per cent to 3.25p. Prime's last deal was a disaster and had to be untangled although the company escaped with only a pounds 100,000 loss. The group used to be called ASB Barnett Kinnings.